Author’s tat: Positive Mental Attitude (thank you Bad Brains).

Warriors on Unhappiness

The calico legacy of the pioneers of “positive thinking”

Mitch Horowitz
8 min readFeb 20, 2024


Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he

That every man in arms should wish to be?

Character of the Happy Warrior, William Wordsworth, 1806

A shop rule among carpenters is: measure twice, cut once. In devising this book — a portrait of the most persuasive and fascinating, if inevitably flawed, figures in New Thought, an umbrella term for modernity’s affirmative-­mind theologies popularized in the mid-­to-­late 1890s — I have measured many times before cutting. Indeed, one of the key questions I faced was: who to include?

I privileged those figures and ideas I deemed most rewarding, lasting, and efficacious, without whom the philosophy of New Thought as we know it today would seem less familiar and practical.

In making my selections, I can disavow neither personal taste nor error. There is, it must be acknowledged, a degree of affinity present. I warrant only earnestness of effort and consistency of criteria.

Happy Warriors explores not just New Thought’s most intellectually and spiritually stimulating figures, or so I reckon, but those who remain widely read and influential. On that last count, I permit several exceptions, including the late-­nineteenth-­century journalist-­seeker Prentice Mulford with whom the book opens; Mulford deserves widespread rediscovery. I begin with the fitful seeker because he, perhaps more than any other figure in New Thought, elevated the genre to the conversational, widely accessible language on which it soared to influence.

Many of these chapter essays are new to book form, others have appeared elsewhere but are revised and expanded. The men and women who compose this biographical landscape are met more or less in chronological order of their careers, beginning in the late-­nineteenth century and progressing to the late twentieth.

As a study of those who refined and communicated positive-­mind metaphysics, Happy Warriors dwells chiefly on second-­generation figures and less on the movement’s early progenitors, such as mental healer Phineas Quimby, minister and author Warren Felt Evans, Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy (a complex figure distinctive from New Thought), and seminal teacher Emma Curtis Hopkins, who are explored in my earlier books Occult America (2009), One Simple Idea (2014), and Modern Occultism (2023). These pioneers are, of course, referenced in many individual chapters.

I mentioned my earlier book, One Simple idea, which is an overall history of the positive-­thinking movement. Once upon a time, I had planned to call that volume Happy Warriors. Publishing professionals discouraged it and I complied. Yet I continued to hold a flame for the title, which is drawn from William Wordsworth’s 1806 poem, “Character of the Happy Warrior.” In reclaiming it here, I think I do justice to my subjects. The term happy warriors captures my affection for these men and women, amid their affinities, strivings, aims — and failures.

Wordsworth praises the individual who, “Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought/Upon the plan that pleased his boyish thought.” He means not childishness but youthful enthusiasm and moxie. This invites another question: Are the ideas championed by these radical optimists any good?

The division over whether a spiritual, ethical, or therapeutic philosophy is “good” or “bad” depends not on whether someone likes or approves of it but whether it works. In matters of personal philosophy, the sole meaningful measure of utility appears in the conduct and experience of the user.

As asked — sincerely — by twentieth-century mystic Vernon Howard, who appears in these pages: “Will you trust a religion or philosophy that does not produce a truly poised and decent human being?”

By these simple standards, the figures in Happy Warriors provide perhaps the most readily applicable and testable personal philosophy available to us. Their intellectual and spiritual gambit can be summarized: you are as your mind is, also the title of the chapter on writer-lecturer Neville Goddard (1905–1972).

For these reasons, this book is at once historical and practical — its ideas and methods are offered with sufficient detail to be tried if the reader desires. In terms of historicism, each chapter includes references either within the text, as footnotes, or in source essays at the end, and sometimes all three. These references are intended to be read and used for further study.

Like all intimate queries into spiritual, therapeutic, or ethical philosophies, experiments into New Thought must be ventured amid life’s frictions and disappointments. Such frictions marked the existence of these purveyors as much as they do yours and my own.

I call myself a “believing historian” and, as such, I have personally worked with the ideas in this book, alternately as publisher, writer, and seeker — sometimes wearing all hats simultaneously — for about twenty-­five years. What have I to show for it?

My best assessment is that the mind-­causation thesis works over the long term, although countervailing forces exist and make themselves felt. I wrote this in my 2022 Daydream Believer:

As I once walked through the darkened streets of a slightly humid Brooklyn spring evening and reflected on my life up to and encompassing of that moment, I realized with an overwhelming sense of actuality that life assumes the contours of consistently held thought. (In fact, what you just read was the first line written of this book [Daydream Believer].) The arrival of this perspective or realization — which I suspect you have also felt at one time or another — may be experienced as a surprise; it may reflect myriad joyous or painful possibilities; it may convey an understanding of how others have been affected (and raise questions, too, about the ultimate nature of all our experiences, a point I revisit); it may present you with momentary awareness of the impact of your alienated or unacknowledged selections; and it may leave unanswered critical questions — such as the seismically powerful force of physical limitations and the organic framework within which we function. But this realization will also leave you, or already has, with the indelible and somewhat jarringly ecstatic and frightening notion that there is functional truth in the proposition that thought plays a decisive role that is molding, instigative, and formative of your lived experience or conception of reality.

I refer to thought not strictly as a tool of decision, although that too is an aspect of life, but as a galvanic and selective force. To assume otherwise is to ascribe too much facility, I think, to the rational, prioritizing facets of intellect, which, experience also teaches, wield so little actual control over the order of life, including our emotions, intimacies, and physically felt urges — much less so control over those of others. And to default to the viewpoint that thought is a limited expression of the physical senses or neuro-­system is no longer supportable in our post-­ materialist era . . .

To shape a life — and this can creep up on us unawares — is not so much a matter of rational plans, the perception of which we often impose as an illusory order on the past after the fact. Nor is your life wholly the domain of accident since we can divine early in the existence of any individual personality traits that doggedly even deterministically linger. But, rather, life is, in consort with other factors, including some that we cannot gain perspective on, an out-­ picturing of attitude, hunger, fear, striving, and long-­ sustained thought. Take this very moment to gaze back on your earliest fantasies, good or ill, or on wishes and fears, passionately harbored during periods of discontent and joy, and see if you do not detect a symmetry.

I return to some of these suppositions — and evidence for them — but I wish to make another observation here. As I’ve often noted, even if consciousness is the ultimate arbiter of reality — for which a compelling case can be made — there is no “mental super law” controlling all of our day-­to-­day affairs and outcomes. Natural laws, when they exist, are conditioned by surrounding circumstances. Complex forces, many more than we may ever know, interweave through our experience.

One of the prejudices resonant from New Thought’s founding lies in its roots in a bustling and sometimes booming late-­nineteenth and early twentieth-century America where money could seem to appear from out of the ether, especially as the stock market expanded, and, for many people, more so today, physical safety and satiety were and remain a relative given. Inexpensive consumer goods — sometimes produced through objectionable labor conditions — were and remain relatively plentiful. In earlier eras, issues of end-­of-­life care and widespread needs of a geriatric population were less known as, frankly, diseases and other burdens took people at an earlier age. Hence, previous generations of New Thoughters did not contend with the same emotional and social issues now intrinsic to aging and illness. Finally, American shores have, as of this writing, been relatively untouched by war and overwhelming natural disaster. To suggest that these factors foster tunnel vision — including within New Thought — is a relative given.

That said, I believe that New Thought’s early generations, beginning in the mid-­to-­late nineteenth century and extending into the twentieth, demonstrated extraordinary instincts for the perceptual basis of reality, a contention later supported in fields including quantum mechanics, neuroplasticity, psychical research, and mind-­body medicine.

At the same time, the New Thought field, so promising in its start and so attracting of world-­class intellects, some of whom, such as philosopher William James (1842–1910) and physician-­scientist Richard C. Cabot (1868–1939), appear in this book, ultimately did a better job of popularizing than of refining itself.

Hence, amid the many bestselling communicators of New Thought (not all of whom used the term) many pressing and even urgent questions, including those suggested earlier, are either addressed without depth or ignored. Notably, New Thought never devised a persuasive theology of suffering.

I try to amend this in my work and in this volume raise questions of tragedy, opposition, and purpose at various points, including the epilogue, which highlights the outlook of a different kind of happy warrior: traditionalist social critic Christopher Lasch (1932–1994).

The twentieth-century philosopher foresaw much of the division in our present culture and offered probably the most trenchant and informed critique of popular mysticism. His voice, too, must be heard — with it, I provide my rejoinder.

In surveying these voices, I aim not only to document the lives of influential modern seekers — all possessed of their own greatness and limits — but to highlight the best ideas that have been spoken, written, and lived within New Thought tradition. In so doing, I wish to provide a yardstick for where the philosophy has been and where it must go.

Seekers, and virtually all of us, require a practical philosophy of ­ living — Ralph Waldo Emerson called for a “Philosophy for the People.” Such an outlook must harness the individual’s greatest possibilities yet not abandon him or her in method or meaning when incomprehensible tragedy strikes.

I hope, finally, that the careers of these intrepid seekers point to the splendorous possibilities of New Thought — and the lacunas that our generation and the next are called to fill.

This article is the introduction to the author’s forthcoming Happy Warriors:



Mitch Horowitz

"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China